Celebrating the World Cup is a ritual in Latin America: kids trading Panini cards, official and unofficial work holidays, and conspicuous displays of national pride are the norm.
But at this year’s edition, which begins in Moscow on June 14, politics have become a distraction, and the region’s usual tournament buzz is subdued.
FIFA, soccer’s now-infamous governing body, is at the center of the commotion. The organization has made a dizzying number of headlines in the past three years, beginning with a corruption scandal uncovered by the U.S. Department of Justice and culminating with an upcoming vote on who will host the World Cup in 2026 – the day before the 2018 tournament kicks off.
The result of that vote will have huge ramifications for the Americas, as the U.S., Mexico, and Canada have presented a joint bid to bring the tournament back to North America for the first time since 1994.
From a technical, financial, and logistical perspective, the NAFTA region’s bid is vastly superior to its only competitor, Morocco. But the politics of the vote, in which every FIFA member nation has an equal say, has put the outcome in doubt. For some countries, the decision has turned into a referendum on U.S. President Donald Trump. That’s one reason why Mexico and Canada were asked to join the bid in the first place. But Mexico and Canada’s presence has not dissuaded some traditional U.S. allies (including France) from backing the Morocco bid, despite it being against their financial interests.
In past years, FIFA was happy to sit back and let similar politics unfold. It was a last minute political deal struck between the Emir of Qatar and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 that shockingly swung the 2022 tournament vote away from the U.S. to Qatar.
But today’s FIFA is a political organization that needs to run like a business in order to survive – and what the business most needs is the massive injection of revenue that a NAFTA World Cup would bring.
Whatever the outcome of the June 13 vote, the designation of the 2026 host will be the talk of the 2018 tournament’s first week. That’s unfortunate, because there are plenty of other storylines – on and off the pitch – worth following. Here are a few things to know about each of Latin America’s eight competitors at this year’s World Cup.
The most bizarre World cup storyline from the region comes from Mexico, where 39-year-old Rafa Márquez appears set to make his fifth World Cup appearance. In doing so, he will join an elite fraternity of only two other players who have accomplished the feat. He will also likely make history as the only player to ever play a World Cup match while actively listed on the U.S. Government’s OFAC “drug kingpin” list – a designation resulting from his charity’s alleged money laundering ties to Mexican cartel figure Raúl Flores. This surreal situation saw Márquez participating in training camp wearing jerseys with no sponsorship logos – ostensibly removed out of legal or reputational concerns.
On the pitch, only El Tri’s most optimistic fans believe this will be the year that Mexico breaks through to the quarterfinals. They’ll first have to navigate a difficult group that includes Germany, a tournament front-runner, then would face a likely showdown with Brazil, another tournament favorite, in the Round of 16. Add to that a presidential election that falls smack in the middle of the competition, and there’s little reason to believe that Mexicans will be glued to their televisions in celebration this summer.
Like Mexico, Colombians will head to the polls in the middle of cup season, when the second-round presidential vote takes place on June 27. This election has divided the country along sharp political lines and the cup should provide Colombians the chance to rally around the flag. But the squad brings modest ambitions to this World Cup, despite being drawn into one of the competition’s weakest first-round groups and returning a roster and coach that advanced to the quarterfinals in 2014. These lower expectations are a product of Los Cafeteros’ unstylish qualifying campaign, which saw it field a different lineup almost every match and produce a brand of futbol that didn’t quite feel like the Colombian version of the beautiful game.
In Brazil, enthusiasm for this year’s cup has been tempered by a years-long corruption scandal, economic turmoil, and anxiety over an unpredictable presidential election set for October. Perhaps that’s the reason for some Brazilians’ cautious expectations for their side, despite a dominant South American World Cup Qualifying campaign and their status as one of the betting favorites. It won’t help that the Seleçao exited the 2014 tournament in Brazil with a 7-1 drubbing in the semi-finals at the hands of eventual champion, Germany. Brazil are five-time champions and their standard for success is never less than winning the tournament, but a return to the semi-finals in 2018 would probably meet the realistic expectations of most Brazilian fans.
Peru and Panama
The feel-good stories of the region come from Peru and Panama. Peru will play in the competition for the first time since 1982, while Panama qualified for the World Cup for the first time in its history this year, thanks to a late goal in qualifying from captain Roman Torres. Panama’s qualification marks a transition in national sporting pastimes from baseball to soccer, reflecting the new politics of this more globalized, less U.S.-centric Panamanian generation. Fittingly, Panama’s dramatic qualification came at the expense of the U.S.
Sometimes the luck of the draw makes the difference between an early tournament exit and a deep run. The team in Latin America leading a charmed life this go-around is Uruguay. La Celeste are an experienced, consistent team that drive few headlines. But they have arguably the clearest path to the quarterfinals, with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal squad likely the best team they would need to beat to get there. Uruguay surprised the soccer world in 2010 by making it to semi-finals in South Africa thanks in large part due to a favorable draw, and 2018 could see a repeat.
The 2014 World Cup darlings made an incredible run to the quarterfinals and cemented Costa Rica’s place as a relevant player in global soccer – a remarkable accomplishment for the nation of only 3 million people. Despite an experienced squad and an impressive qualification in which they beat the U.S. twice, there is little pressure on this team going into Russia, something that should play to Los Ticos’ advantage this summer.
Among the most fanatical of global futbol fans, Argentines will certainly give the Albiceleste priority attention during the tournament, even amid the country’s recent economic and political tumult. This tournament likely marks the last time fans will get to witness Lionel Messi at his peak on soccer’s biggest stage. Messi’s consistent brilliance over the last 15 years has earned him praise as one of the greatest players of all time. But he’s yet to bring soccer’s most coveted prize to a nation obsessed with winning it. Until he does, many Argentines will see Messi’s promise as unfulfilled.
No team outside of Europe has won a World Cup on European soil since Brazil in 1958, and there’s plenty in the way of that happening in 2018. As former English soccer great Gary Lineker famously quipped: “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win.” Lineker’s assessment proved right in 2014. Messi and Latin America’s other stars will see if they can complicate matters this time around.
Sprague is the author of the critically acclaimed documentary The Two Escobars, the Chairman of the Board of love.futbol, and is Vice President for Legal, External Affairs & Communications for Braskem North America. Follow him on Twitter @nicksprague